It had been a long day, the kind where the winter chill has kids bouncing off the walls. My three wanted to slide down our long hallway in their stocking feet and put on all their snow gear in order to play outside for a solid two minutes. By the time dinner was ready, I was counting the minutes until my husband, Pete, walked through the door. So were my kids. As they had done practically every day, they’d started playing right near the door. They loved when their Pappa came in and they got to attack him with hugs and stories of the day.
Our front door opened out into a long hallway that housed the other apartments on our floor. Our building was a friendly one and sometimes the kids would wait for Pete to arrive home with the door ajar. They’d greet other residents as they came home, show off their art, invite them to dinner. On this particular day, though, the neighbor directly across from us had mentioned she had a headache. So I kept the door closed to offer her as much quiet as living across from three small children would allow.
Just as I was wondering if I should set the table, our new puppy began barking. He’d done this each night right around this time for a few weeks. I assumed he had developed a sixth sense about Pete coming home, especially since he entered through the end of the building our puppy could not see through any window. On that night, though, he started to growl as well. Then we heard the door down the hall crash open, and a chilling voice we did not recognize screamed, “Help me! Help me!”
My children ran from the door and gathered at my feet, waiting for me to crouch down and hold them. I wondered if I should run out to the hall and see what I could do, but our puppy was against the door by then, barking and growling with a ferocity we didn’t know he possessed. I grabbed my phone from my pocket and dialed 911; the voice in the hall continued to scream: “Help me! Help me!”
A chilling voice we did not recognize screamed, “Help me! Help me!” I suddenly realized there was a quality of that screaming voice that was eerily familiar to me.
I could scarcely get the words out because I suddenly realized there was a quality of that screaming voice that was eerily familiar to me. As I hung up the phone, I heard a knock at my door. “Paula. Paula,” my neighbor with the headache beckoned. “It’s your husband. He’s been attacked.”
My children fell away from me. Learning that it was their Pappa screaming, they tried to rush to him. I jumped in front of them, opened the door, and asked another neighbor, who had come to get me as well, to keep them in the apartment. She was holding her newborn baby. As she closed the door, I heard her say cheerfully, “He’s okay. He’s just rattled. That’s all. Just rattled. A little rattled; that’s all.” It occurred to me that she seemed a bit rattled herself. I would later learn she had been the first to open her door upon hearing the screams—while holding her newborn baby.
There, all the way at the end of the hall, I could see my husband trying to stand up. Two other neighbors had come out to help him. The hallway felt a mile long. The attackers, two of them, had ripped his backpack apart. One neighbor had gone down the stairs a bit, collecting pens and keys and such. Another was helping my husband steady himself.
By the time I got to him, he looked deep into me. I knew then why the voice had been at once unrecognizable and familiar. It had come from my husband, but it was no voice I had ever heard him use before. It was his primal scream—somehow, after 13 years of marriage and three children, my calm, serene husband had never before found the need to use it. “Are you okay?” I squeaked out.
“Are you?” he asked. “The kids? Did any of you see anything? Did you hear anything? I tried to run out a different door so you wouldn’t see or hear.”
That’s when I lost it. While being attacked, he’d tried to find a way out of the building so we would not have to hear him or see him. That’s when the kids came running. That’s when the puppy broke loose from our rattled neighbor—the neighbor, I need to repeat, holding her newborn baby.
I knew why the voice had been at once unrecognizable and familiar. It had come from my husband, but it was no voice I had ever heard him use before. It was his primal scream.
The two men had only managed to get Pete’s phone, which they wrestled from him while he did everything possible not to fall. Ultimately, they slammed him down, knees first to the ground, took it, and upon witnessing four different doors open, ran like crazy. By the time the police had arrived, they were long gone.
The police told us there had been a few robberies on our block that month. They suspected the burglars were watching our buildings and taking note of when people came and went. Since my husband took the same train home every day, he always arrived at that door around the same time (indeed, our puppy must have sensed them watching because he never barked at that hour again). He was an easy target.
You might think this event has permanently scarred us. It did cause some sleepless nights at first. We had a few therapy sessions to process the experience. And we still sometimes shudder when we talk about it.
But there was a more important lesson that stays with us when we think of the night my husband, my children’s father, was attacked in our building: We humans need each other. We need community.
As I learned in bits and pieces over the following few weeks, while I was calling the police, every single neighbor on our floor who was home had come out to help whoever was screaming—a couple in their seventies, the mom with her newborn baby, another couple in their sixties, my single neighbor with the headache, who had lived in the building since it was built 45 years before. A few from one floor up even came down as soon as they could.
Never have I felt more safe than I did sitting there, surrounded by my neighbors, talking about how my husband had just been attacked.